No one was more astounded by JRR Tolkien’s popularity than Tolkien himself – except perhaps his contemporaries, Edmund Wilson and other high-profile critics who condemned him and all literature that differed from modernism. Tolkien’s masterpiece The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954-1955), were released to light acclaim and slowly won readers by word of mouth. In the 1960s, his fantasy realm, Middle-earth, was embraced by the counterculture. Since then, Tolkien’s popularity, ahead of Peter Jackson’s films, has only grown, along with academic acclaim.
The Haggerty Museum of Art and Marquette University’s Raynor Memorial Libraries is hosting an exhibition entitled “JRR Tolkien: The Art of the Manuscript” featuring more than 120 objects created by Tolkien, many of which have never been exhibited, including manuscripts by The Hobbit and “The Lord of the Rings”. Marquette’s long association with Tolkien began during the author’s lifetime. Tolkien Collection Curator William Fliss credits Library Director William Ready with acquiring Tolkien manuscripts in the 1950s as part of his project to house the papers of Roman Catholic writers. The author’s son and literary executor, Christopher Tolkien, fulfilled his father’s wish by supplying additional material to the Marquette Library in the 1980s.
“The working drafts of Tolkien’s canonical texts are the strength of Marquette’s collection,” says Fliss co-curator, UWM Professor of Art History Sarah Schaefer. “Our aim with this exhibition is to examine several levels of Tolkien’s work through the manuscripts.”
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Deep sources of imagination
Tolkien was an accomplished scholar of Anglo-Saxon and Old English literature at Oxford University, which was one of the deep sources for Middle-earth. The Marquette exhibition is preceded by some of the medieval material, including the manuscripts that Tolkien studied and that formed part of his literary and academic world. “The key point is how these scientific materials influenced the stories and legends he developed,” explains Schaefer.
“The Art of the Manuscript” is not just words on paper. There will also be maps and calligraphy that Tolkien devised to richly endow Middle-earth with a tangible sense of history. Tolkien created entire languages for the mythical inhabitants of his imaginary world. “You will see how the appearance of his languages developed, how he created a complex chronology and conception of space,” says Schaefer. Tolkien created medieval-style manuscripts as part of his literary project. Shown is a text referred to in The Lord of the Rings, The Book of Mazarbul, drawn up in ballpoint pen and colored pencils with three sides painted (on loan from the Bodleian Library, Oxford).
Tolkien was the late product of a medieval revival that included William Morris and a host of writers and artists who turned their backs on industrialized modernity, the “dark satanic mills” spurned by William Blake. And yet the vibrancy of Tolkien’s vision was honed under fire as a lieutenant during World War I. Earth like his reading of Beowulf.
Tolkien’s themes and moral values are embodied in characters who embark on an inner journey of self-discovery and quest for victory over Mordor, taking them through a sentient landscape of enchantment. He clothed universal archetypes in the language and costume of Anglo-Saxon sagas.
Why did Tolkien persevere when the bestsellers of his day are forgotten and high literary classics are seldom read outside of the classroom? “How to start scaling this question?” says Fliss. “Tolkien is that rare author who gains new readers through the generations. Fans who read him had children who read them, and they in turn had children. “Why” is the big question? He has created a world that will undo our disbelief and is populated by memorable characters. The values at the heart of the stories – friendship and loyalty – are strongly expressed and resonate with readers of all ages.”
JRR Tolkien: The Art of the Manuscript will be on view from August 19th to December 12th. 12 at the Haggerty Museum of Art. For more information, see marquette.edu/haggerty-museum.